THE THUNDER OF HOOF BEATS,
OR HOW MY HERO TAUGHT ME MORE ABOUT HORSES
One of the delights of writing Regency romance is the ability to channel the history geek that, I believe, lurks in the heart of all Regency writers. Most of us amass libraries of reference works, to be poured over in pursuit of some arcane tidbit necessary to finish a scene where we’ve stopped cold, because we don’t know what barley looks like growing in the field through which our hero must ride, or even what crop grows in the part of England he’s riding through.
Alas, it’s back to the books or the internet, until we can envision the scene, and thus describe it.
For my May release, THE RAKE TO REVEAL HER, I knew my hero, who’d lost an eye and an arm at Waterloo, had to be prevented by those injuries from continuing to practice the occupation to which he’d intended to devote his life. Consulting other experts about the matter led to the happy fact that the loss of peripheral vision caused by having only one eye (thank you, fellow writer and horse expert Shannon Donnelly) would mean it would be foolhardy for him to continue jumping. Thus, his previous occupation had been training and breeding hunters and steeplechasers.
In a way nearly impossible for us to imagine, early nineteenth-century England was the Age of the Horse. To the traditional duties of transport (people, carriages, goods) and work (plowing, forestry, and hauling,) the wealth of the landed classes and the growing wealth of the Industrial Revolution’s new merchantile class saw the increasing focus on the horse as leisure activity, in racing, hunting and steeplechasing.
Racing was and is primarily the stronghold of the thoroughbred. Though technically the term can refer to any pure-bred horse, it is traditionally associated with horses bred from three original stallions imported from the Middle East, the Byerley Turk (1680s), the Darley Arabian (1704), and the Godolphin Arabian (1729). Not nearly as fussy about the mothers of their racehorses, the breeders crossed the imported stock with native English mares. The desire to track and crossbreed efficiently (and later, exclude from races any horse whose heritage didn’t measure up) led to the creation of the General Stud Book in 1791, in which horses tracing their lineage to listed sires would be registered.
Charles I and Queen Anne were both keen enthusiasts of racing and racehorse breeding, giving a royal and aristocratic support to the sport that exists to this day (once, at Goodwood Races, I had the thrill of watching one of Queen Elizabeth II’s horses race; sadly, it didn’t win!) So, although dabbling in trade or performing in the arts as a professional was forbidden to anyone who called himself a gentleman, a member of the Regency ton could actively participate in breeding.
Many of the most famous race meets had already been established by the Regency: the St. Leger Stakes in 1776; the Epsom Oaks in 1779; the Epsom Derby in 1780; the 2,000 Guineas Stakes in 1809 and the 1,000 Guineas Stakes in 1814. Early 18th century races had been longer, up to 4 miles, and run in heats, whereas by the Regency, a single dash of 1 to 1 ¾ miles was preferred, a style that favored younger, faster horses.
This also coincided with the rapidly-increasing popularity of fox hunting, a sport not nearly as old as racing. Up until the end of the 18th century, hunting had been confined to hares and deer, the fox being considered mere vermin (it wasn’t good for eating) to be killed when possible (an Elizabethan law required churchwardens of each parish to pay a bounty for the heads of dead foxes.) But by the Regency, wild deer were a rarity, and haring, and the harriers bred for it, not a very exciting sport. Hares depended on trickery to escape a pursuer, running in circles or doubling back, whereas the fox depended almost entirely on speed. Since the harriers were bred to have a superior nose, to track the wily hare through its shenanigans, but without much concern for speed, they couldn’t outrun the fox.
Such foxhunting as was done depended on hunting early in the morning, when the foxes were returning, exhausted it was hoped, from their nocturnal rounds, and thus were slow enough for the hounds to catch. But in 1753, a wealthy 18-year-old country gentleman named Hugo Meynell rented Quorn Hall near the village of that name, and began breeding foxhounds that were fast enough to keep up with the most energetic fox.
The speedy hounds, and the open grassland in Leicestershire which made the chase faster and exciting, allowed for hunting later in the day; the later start and faster speeds also made the sport attractive to fashionable young men who couldn’t be bothered to rise early to watch slow dogs chase rabbits. As the fame of Meynell’s pack at the Quorn spread, and in the 1780’s and 90’s, the Duke of Rutland’s Belvoir hounds and Sir William Lowther’s Cottesmore Hounds earned equal fame for good sport, hunting gentlemen looked for a location where they might hunt all three packs—turning the conveniently-located hamlet of Melton Mowbry into the mecca of fox hunting, and minting “Meltonian” as a descriptor of a young, fashionable, hell-bent-for-leather rider.
The enclosure movement that advances in agriculture had pushed forward (enclosed fields could be drained, cleared, planted with a seed-till, and made more productive) added the final fillip of thrill to the experience: fences. Though Meynell and the earlier adherents were more interested in the performance of the hounds, preferring to go around or through obstacles rather than jump--riding to hunt, the young men who flocked after him unquestionable hunted to ride. Such men were also likely to enjoy the ancient sport of cross-country or the new one of steeplechasing, first practiced in Ireland, but brought over to England on prepared courses at Newmarket in 1794 and Bedford in 1810.
Like Hugo Meynell, one of the first to use thoroughbreds as hunters, avid racers like my hero Dominick Ransleigh bred their horses for speed and endurance. So, what was he to do when he could no longer ride such a horse?
It took me much of the writing of Dom’s book to figure that out. Eventually, he (yes, the characters do talk to us) and the evolving story, which saw him becoming interested in agriculture on the family estate in Suffolk to which he’d returned, initially looking only for solitude, led him to an interest in breeding draft horses (or draught horses, if you’re speaking British English.) Pulling a plow through heavy clay soils requires a strong horse, with a docile temperament and a taste for hard work.
With artistic license, I placed my hero in the middle of the development of such a breed, which began in the late 18th century from a crossbreeding of a native “Suffolk Sorrel,” a stallion foaled near Woodbridge in 1768 and owned by Thomas Crisp of Ulford. “Crisp’s horse” was typical of the breed, short, compact with bony legs, gentle, tractable, and strong with well-muscled shoulders. One of the breeds intermixed with it was the Norfolk Trotter, which added strength and what the breed now calls “energy at the trot.”
The results of this crossbreeding became known as the Suffolk Punch. Always chesnut in color, though it can range from dark to red to light, is it shorter but more massive than other heavy draught breeds like the Clydesdale (originally an Irish horse) or the Shire. Maturing early, long-lived and requiring less feed than horses of similar type and size, the Suffolk Punch is still used today, famed as hard and willing workers for forestry work, pulling brewery wagons (one of its earliest and most enduring tasks) and in advertising.
Bits about Hugo Meynell, hunting, steeplechasing and breeding are tucked (unobtrusively, one hopes) into the story of Dom Ransleigh and Theo Branwell, the lady who captivates him in THE RAKE TO REVEAL HER. In the process of writing it, I was able to indulge my history geekness by further exploring the background of one of our most enduring Regency characters—the horse. I hope you, gentle reader, will enjoy the story, too!
With thanks to:
Shannon Donnelly (www.shannondonnelly.com)
E. W. Bovill, ENGLISH COUNTRY LIFE 1780-1830 (London: Oxford University Press) 1962
David C. Itzkowitz, PECULIAR PRIVILEGE: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF ENGLISH FOXHUNTING 1753-1885 (Suffolk: The Havester Press LTD) 1977